LAS VEGAS (FOX5) - It's no secret: child sex trafficking is a problem in the valley.
The traffickers aren't going unnoticed. A volunteer group made of some exceptional people have a very impressive record of recovering victims.
Saved in America is a team of retired Navy SEALs, former police officers and federal agents turned private investigators.
A recent Las Vegas rescue mission was led by Joe Travers, a former law enforcement officer who created Saved in America back in 2014. The rest of the team consisted of: Frank Bonniwell, Tech Ops, Toshiro ‘Tosh’ Carrington, retired Navy SEAL Chief, Sean Murphy, a retired San Diego police lieutenant, and Ulisses Palafox, a drone operator and former federal agent.
Before the crew can rescue a teenager or child who was seduced into sex trafficking, they need to learn a little bit about them. That happens at the mobile command center.
On the day of the mission, the crew learned about a 15-year-old girl from San Jose who was in Las Vegas. She was referred to as "Maria" to hide her identity.
“Alright we got a missing child, height 5-foot-1, weight 110, race Asian. Multiple arrests for prostitution,” Bonniwell said.
Maria’s mother reported her missing from California. The team said they believed she’s become a victim of sex trafficking.
“They can sell them over and over and over and over and over again,” said Travers.
Last year, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police's Human Trafficking Task Force rescued more than 123 teenagers and children. More than half of those girls and boys were runaways.
But police can’t be everywhere. That’s where Travers said he believes his team can help.
“We've been in communications with the mother and we've been trying to get more intel, but I think she's been out traveling right now,” Bonniwell said.
Ironically, the team relies on social media for leads, which they also blame for making teens more vulnerable to traffickers.
“Without it ... I will have a hard time finding them, but with it, it also helps contribute to the problem,” Bonniwell said.
The guys spent hours digging through Maria’s social media while trying to make contact with the girl’s mother to give them a fuller picture of Maria.
“The other thing we're trying to get her to do, is fill out the actual application, which will give us even further detail and more intel about her social media and people she associated with before she left,” Bonniwell said.
After almost three hours at the mobile command center, the crew took off to see if they could find Maria.
“When you tell people that ... you’re rescuing girls from being trafficked and the guys that are doing the rescuing are a bunch of former Navy SEALs, SAS or Marine rangers and recon guys – the first thing that comes into your head is 'ok, they’re going to fly in on a helicopter, blow the place up and then go in and make a hostage rescue,'” Sean Murphy said.
Not exactly, he said. They scout out the neighborhood first and make sure to keep a low profile while they’re there.
Murphy was a San Diego police lieutenant for more than three decades.
“This is the area that she’s in,” Murphy said as he drove by an apartment complex where Maria was recently arrested for prostitution.
This is where the search can get tedious.
“I’m going to move around a little bit and Ulisses is going to the taco shop,” Murphy said into a walkie-talkie.
The team watched the neighborhood for more than two hours.
And then, “Hey this might be worth exploring I can’t tell if she’s Asian or Hispanic but she kind of fits the description,” said one of the guys into Murphy’s walkie talkie.
Murphy got closer.
“I got a look at her, I don’t think it’s her. She looks like a kid.
Saved in America didn’t find Maria that day.
“The complexion is the same and maybe the height a little bit, but she looked like she was just a young kid. I think this other girl we’re looking for is a little more street,” Murphy told the crew once they called off the search.
So far, Saved in America has made 197 rescues. They’re hoping Maria will be 198.
“Another day, we come back and get her,” Carrington said.
“Somebody told me one night: 'Ever gone fishing? Did you catch all the fish? You’re never going to catch all of them. You’re never going to find all of them. It’s impossible. If we save one girl we save one girl,'” Murphy said.